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June 15, 2003


From: Grand Forks Herald, ND - Jun 15, 2003

Hannah McSparron learns how to talk -- the 13-month-old knows how to say about 15 words using American Sign Language

By Christina Murphy
Herald Staff Writer

It's lunchtime, and Erin McSparron is feeding her 13-month-old daughter, Hannah, her two favorite foods: cottage cheese and avocado.

"Do you want more?" Erin asks Hannah, looking at her and motioning on the last word. "More?" she repeats, along with her gesture.

Erin pauses to wait for Hannah's response. Sometimes the baby just looks at her and smiles. Sometimes she points to the cottage cheese container sitting on the table.

"Finished!" Hannah says, waving her small hands in the air.

"Oh no, you're not finished," her mother tells the baby as she feeds her another spoonful.

"Do you want more?" she asked again, repeating her gesture.

Baby talk

The gestures and hand motions that Erin and Hannah exchange are words

in American Sign Language. At 13 months old, Hannah can sit, stand, walk, eat and play - but she can't speak much yet. So far, Hannah can speak "dadda" and "momma," and she repeats syllables. Her hearing is perfectly normal. Around the time she's 2, Hannah probably will be speaking simple sentences, but in the interim, Erin is teaching her baby sign language so they can communicate.

With a few simple signs such as "more" - made by flattening the thumb against the four index fingers and touching the tips of the fingers on each hand - or "finished" - made by holding the hands palms up in front of the shoulder and turning them over - mother and child can understand each other better at mealtime, and increasingly, as Erin points out, in other everyday situations as well.

Breaking the silence

Erin first saw the benefits of using sign language to communicate with children who can hear but not speak while working as an occupational therapist with children who had autism. One child she was working with at that time was a 4-year-old boy who had no speaking abilities.

As he learned to sign, the boy developed an insatiable appetite for words. He worked with Erin using books and tapes, and eventually he was out-signing his teacher - picking up words that Erin had to look up because she'd never encountered them herself.

She said it was like watching all the years of pent-up frustration of not being able to communicate suddenly release itself.

"It's helped a lot," Erin said. "Now he'll be 8 this month, and 8-year-olds have a lot to say."

Baby sign language

Erin knew before Hannah was born that she wanted to teach her baby sign language.

"I wanted to teach her sign so she could communicate her needs and wants and reduce frustrations at an early age, before she was able to talk," Erin said.

She knew the same concepts that had worked with autistic children could be applied to infants or any hearing child who could not speak, and she'd heard of parenting programs that taught babies how to sign.

It was important to Erin to use American Sign Language because unlike the symbols and motions that parents and children sometimes make up together, ASL is a recognized language that other people know and understand. By teaching ASL, Erin is helping Hannah develop a communication skill that can be readily understood by other caregivers. As Hannah gets older, Erin hopes that she'll retain those skills so she can communicate with the hearing-impaired as well.

Erin has been signing to Hannah since birth. Since conception, actually. Erin pulls out her Anne Geddes baby calendar to recall when Hannah's first sign was: Cow, 8 months. Although Erin thinks that one may have been a coincidence, she wonders sometimes, because the autistic boy she worked with in Iowa liked cows and trains and they used to talk about them a lot together.

"More" was the first word Hannah took to on a regular basis: More, 9 months. Before that, she signed mom and dad, but she hasn't repeated those for quite a while.

Hannah's signing repertoire includes: swing, up, more, finished, yes, nurse, food/eat, water, kiss, music (she's been practicing that one) want, touchdown (Erin's not sure that's really ASL, but dad, Josh, counts it), me, ball and fly. Sometimes she signs "shoes," usually when she's banging her two shoes together. She still has "phone" confused with "hello." She signed her first sentence, "more food" right after she turned a year old.

Teaching signs

To teach a baby sign language, Erin explained, requires a lot of patience and repetition. Babies have to develop the memory retention and the motor skills to accomplish signs. They can start signing as early as 8 months, but each child will vary in how quickly he or she picks up signs.

Erin recommended starting sign language with babies at 6 months, so they would be familiar with the signs by the time they were old enough to say them back. She added that parents can start at any age. How fast a baby can learn varies between children. The older the child is, the faster parents should begin to see results, she said. She cautioned that anyone teaching their child to sign will have to be patient.

When parents start signing to their babies, Erin said, they should say the word as they're signing it and make sure the child is looking at the sign when the word is said. It helps to be repetitive. That's why mealtime at the McSparron household includes a lot of discussion about "more" and "finished."

Erin will repeat the same word two or three times for reinforcement. Do you want "more?" she'll ask. "More?" Do you want some "more?" Each time she signs the word "more" as she says it. Signs also can be exaggerated for emphasis, just like tone and voice inflection will change for emphasis in speech.

Just like a child learning to speak, a baby learning to sign will start by using approximations. Their signs may be slightly altered or partial forms of ASL. Erin explained that when a child is learning to talk they may say "momma" or "dadda" and the parent may correct by repeating back "mom" or "dad." The same concept applies to teaching ASL. A baby who makes a partial sign should be praised for saying the word, she said, but then the parent should 'say' back the word using the correct form of the sign so that the baby's signing accuracy will improve.

Sign with your baby

When the McSparron family moved back to North Dakota from Iowa, Erin encountered a woman at The Stork's Nest Birth Center in Moorhead who taught baby sign language using the Joseph Garcia Sign With Your Baby program. Even though she already knew how to teach infant sign language, Erin had been looking for a format for setting up classes, and she liked the Joseph Garcia program because it used ASL.

As an affiliated presenter for the Joseph Garcia program, Erin just started her own baby sign language classes in Grand Forks. She's held one class so far, Baby Basics, intended to familiarize families with the methods of baby sign language before jumping into learning signs.

For her first class, Erin taught two families four different signs: more, finished, change and yes. She wanted to start slow so parents would be able to remember the signs learned in class. She slightly altered the Garcia schedule to include the signs that she thought would be most useful. Erin likes the word "yes" because it allows Hannah to respond after her parents ask her a question. "No" is a slightly more difficult concept for babies to grasp, so that one gets saved for later.

And yes, it is possible to teach an infant how to tell mom and dad when it needs a diaper change.

Erin hopes that her next class, this Monday, will draw more families, but said she'll probably have to cut it off at about six. Later this month, she'll hold a two-class sequence for teaching eating and mealtime signs.


Some days Hannah is more talkative than others. At lunchtime today, she seems more content to smile and point than to sign.

One of Hannah's favorite words to sign is finished, which she uses at mealtime or in her car seat, or sometimes just to play. "Finished, finished," she'll say after being strapped into her car seat. "Finished." She likes to get down.

This morning, Hannah wanted to play outside. Erin said as soon as she took her out of her crib, the little girl was signing "ball" and "swing." Erin got her the ball but told her she'd have to wait until later for the swing.

As Mom tells the story, Hannah, in her high-chair, begins to sign "more." The cottage cheese and avocado are still sitting on the table.

So, lunchtime wasn't finished after all.

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